Web Teaching Journal (Week 3): A Comedy of Errors and A Silver Lining?

This is the third in a fifteen part, weekly journal on my experience teaching a web class. Each post explores how things are going in the current week and ideas for future revisions of the course. For my first post, see Week 1 (Why do it, My class, Moodle, Message Board Worries and Drops). For my second post, see Week 2: Failures in Communication. To see entries posted after this one you’re reading now, you can also just pull down the categories menu on the right and select the Web Teaching Journals category.

First of all, I’d like to thank Matt Crosslin over at Edugeek Journal for commenting on my previous post (week 2 journal). His comment had a calming effect on me and reminded me that some of the problems I was describing were not necessarily a function of the medium (web teaching) but the start of the semester. He also noted that community forms, when it forms at all, around something spontaneous or necessary. Community via professor instruction is really kind of silly and unreasonable. His comment also made me reflect on a very simple fact about a lot professors who teach web classes nowadays: they have not taken a web class themselves. This problem will fade as the professorate incorporates individuals with experience in web classes, but for a lot of us working now, we are really at a disadvantage. We just don’t know what it’s like to take a web class. Some of us try to imagine it, and pass that sensitivity on to how we design our courses, but it’s not the same as really taking a web class.

OK, back to community and my previous moaning about fostering it in my class. I have found a brilliant way of fostering community on the message board: make a lot of mistakes and confuse your students. They will turn, in desperation, to each other on the message boards, to try to gain clarity. Here’s my paradox: I have fostered a lot of community in my class as of right now, but it’s because there has been too much confusion and stress.

I once used the phrase “in the can” to praise and criticize web classes I was teaching before. If it’s in the can, a class runs itself, if it’s not, it’s more fluid and changeable. For two semester I taught an “in the can” version of this class. It pretty much ran itself. I could be present, or I could be less present, but the class was fine and stress levels were contained. Now I uncanned my class, took it out, shook the mothballs free, re-organized it, moved it to a different Learning Management System and said this is not so hard, I think I know how this works…. it will be fine! Better even!

Well, maybe x changes are better, but every misstep you make, every microscopic mistake you make gets magnified to the nth degree in a web class. Then when students start asking questions, and talking to each other, and asking you for help, and when you respond and try to get everyone back on track, you just can’t the genie back in the bottle. People are confused by the original situation or by your explanation of how to resolve it or work around it. It’s mostly fixable but in the process you produce a lot of stressed out students, even frustrated students.

I’m of two minds about this reality right now. On the one hand, I’m frustrated myself over some of the errors I’ve made that have caused all the chaos. On the other hand, I feel like I’m really learning a lot about how to avoid these mistakes in the future (what a platitude, I know, I know). And most importantly, I am chagrined that I finally got what I wanted: community in my class. In times of crisis students come together. There’s a lot of message board participation now. I tell ya, they feel comfortable, cuz they ain’t holding back. Another silver lining is that I feel more connected to this web class than any of my other ones. As crazy as things are, I am involved with the students, every day, and sometimes, a bit too much.

My goal is to streamline things so that starting in week 4 things work in a more predictable manner. I am aspiring to some silence on the message boards because that will mean students are more relaxed.

That’s all for this week. Below is a list of the major mistakes or problems that have fanned the flames of community in my web class:

  1. In Moodle, the “hide previous unit” button not only hides the unit content, but also unit activities like quizzes and forums, meaning that students cannot look at their quiz results etc., which causes great anxiety (of course!).
  2. A problem with force-subscribe in Moodle (which we eventually resolved) created a situation in which students subscribed to everything in an attempt to get things to work and now that the subscription scripts are working in Moodle, students are being destroyed by barrages of email from all of the message boards. (My announcements board is the only thing that I’ve force-subscribed students to, but with everyone subscribed to everything, too many email copies of stuff are flying around).
  3. A minor error in naming an external link launched many emails and message board posts expressing consternation about the “missing” or non-existent resource.

3 thoughts on “Web Teaching Journal (Week 3): A Comedy of Errors and A Silver Lining?

  1. Hmmmm…. that is an interesting idea… I wonder if controlled chaos is somehow possible? Create just enough mystery in the class to drive the students to interact, but not enough to stress them out? Maybe intentionally leave some things out of the instructions, or even flat out tell them they have to discuss something and come up with a “class answer”? Teachers in face-to-face classes do things like that all the time – leave out details, or even say incorrect things – on purpose. I wonder how that can be translated in to the online experience? Without freaking students out, of course….

  2. Chris,
    You have mentioned your blog before, but I never visited it. My loss. You write that comments from Matt calmed you. Well, it is also soothing for me to read your frustrations, because I have also had them. At the same time, I picked up on the idea of force-subscribing them to the news board, which is a great. Not that I’ve been bombarding them with news items, but I can now see its utility, thanks to you pointing it out. Since I’m using Moodle as a way to go paperless, but still having all class meetings (MWF)face-to-face, I have been able to keep them from freaking out. Some of the students are very good about pointing out problems and forcing me to look into things. I’ve learned a lot that way, and I thank them in class for helping me, and assuring them that I will make sure that all their work is accounted for seems to calm them. I also picked up on your tip about not hiding the past week’s resources and assignments. I didn’t know that it also blocked their grades for that week. Gracias! PS I’m not yet aspiring to create community, just routine. That will probably have to wait until I have more experience, and then I’ll ponder that. I’m still creating community the traditional way, in the classroom, but that is keeping me sane because I can rely on my old techniques without having to be dependent on the virtual classroom, which I decidedly do not expertly control!

  3. Pingback: Web Teaching Journal (Week 4): Cut and Paste « Prof. Conway’s Homepage

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